Jerusalem’s secular Mayor Nir Barkat has pitted himself against the city’s swelling ranks of Orthodox extremists by demanding that local police enable women to reclaim their position in the public domain.
Over recent months, women’s faces have disappeared from billboards across the city amid mounting pressure applied by the powerful Orthodox lobby, who find the female image offensive.
Several advertisers have erased female models from their posters in Jerusalem. Elsewhere in Israel, the winter campaign of Israeli clothing brand Honigman features a model cosily dressed in winter knits. In the capital, the woman’s head has been removed from the image, leaving just her arm and a handbag.
Companies that do not fall in line with the standards of the extreme Orthodox have frequently fallen victim to direct action.
Across Jerusalem, female figures have been blacked out of billboards with spray-paint, or vandalized with graffiti branding the image “illegal.” Other posters are simply torn down.
On Sunday, Barkat wrote a letter to district police commander Niso Shaham in which he said: “We must make sure that those who want to advertise [with] women’s images in the city can do so without fear of vandalism and defacement of billboards or buses showing women.”
Police have confirmed an increase in vandalism along the borders of Jerusalem’s closed Orthodox neighborhoods. Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police would be stepping up patrols to prevent further acts of hooliganism and ensure it is investigated.
Rosenfeld added that despite being pelted with stones, police officers made several arrests in the Orthodox Meah Shearim neighbourhood last week.
However, activists claim the battle over Jerusalem’s billboards is only one manifestation of a trend toward gender segregation across Israel driven by the religious right.
Hila Benyovich-Hoffman was spurred to take action by reports that nine male cadets in the Israeli Defense Force had walked out of an army event in September because women were singing.
Four were expelled from an officer’s training course for refusing to apologize.
“This was the final straw for me, that these cadets could humiliate female soldiers because some rabbi has told them that a woman’s voice is indecent. The army used to be a source of pride because women served alongside men as equals,” Benyovich-Hoffman said.
She organized a series of demonstrations on Friday in which hundreds of women gathered for “sing-alongs” in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheva to demand their right to a public presence.
It is not just secular Israelis that have been moved to protest. Members of the Haredi Orthodox community themselves are reporting a rise in assaults on women. One Orthodox Web site reported that three Orthodox girls had been physically attacked in Jerusalem for dressing immodestly.
The Israeli Religious Action Center was founded more than a decade ago to take on the fight against gender segregation, which is illegal in Israel. They receive around four calls a day from mostly Orthodox Jewish women. The center estimates that daily, between 500 and 600 bus journeys in Israel are segregated.
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Noami Tsur admits the situation is “deplorable,” but also says that women’s rights have never had a better chance of flourishing in Jerusalem.